The threat of violent-extremism in South-east Asia has evolved in two distinct phases: the Al-Qaeda centric phase and the Islamic State-centric phase.
During the Al-Qaeda-centric phase, as many as 400 terrorist fighters from the region headed to Afghanistan and Pakistan where they gained combat training and experience before returning home.
These fighters created Jemaah Salafiyyah in Thailand, Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines, and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Singapore and Indonesia.
In the IS-centric phase, IS-affiliated and associated groups such as Kumpulan Gagak Hitam and al Kubro Generation in Malaysia, Jamaah Ansharud Daulah in Indonesia and Islamic State Lanao (Maute Group) and IS in the Philippines emerged.
Since mid-2014, at least 63 groups in South-east Asia have pledged an oath of allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Following the decline of IS in Iraq and Syria, the threat of IS has evolved as it becomes more decentralised.
This decentralisation phase of violent-extremism constitutes the third generation of jihadism in South-east Asia.
At its peak in 2014, IS spread to parts of the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Asia, particularly in South-east Asia. The immediate challenge that South-east Asia faces from this third generation of terrorism is the return of these foreign terrorist fighters from the Middle East.
According to estimates from the United States, as many as 31,500 fighters joined IS in Syria and Iraq.
According to the Indonesian Ministry of Defence, an estimated 800 of them are from South-east Asia, of which around 700 are from Indonesia alone.
In recent years, this IS-inspired generation of militants have carried out terrorist attacks in different parts of South-east Asia including the Thamrin attack in Indonesia in 2016, the Movida club attack in Malaysia in the same year and the Marawi siege in Philippines in 2017.
Unlike Al-Qaeda and JI in the early 2000s which operated discretely, IS, through its use of graphic videos, speeches and attack methods, has opted for open and indiscriminate warfare.
Moreover, several terrorist plots have since been disrupted by the security agencies, including a plan to fly an explosive-laden drone into the police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, an attempt to mount a suicide attack against the State Palace in Jakarta as well as a plan to fire a rocket at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
The recent plots, which were uncovered by the security agencies, indicate that these terrorists were planning to make anthrax and botulinum in Malaysia and ricin and thorium in Indonesia.
In light of this, it is evident that the terrorists are determined to destabilise the region and sustain a province of the so-called caliphate in Southeast Asia (known as a wilayah).
Against this backdrop, it is important to take stock of measures enacted by governments and security agencies to mitigate the current and emerging threat.
The terrorist threat in South-east Asia has shifted dramatically after IS linked Filipino groups sieged Marawi city on May 23, 2017.
Although IS’ plans to establish a wilayah in Southeast Asia have been known since 2014, governments had underestimated the extent of the IS threat in the region.
Regional authorities were hesitant to share intelligence and failed to devise joint intelligence mechanisms until the fall of Marawi city to IS.
In 2017, the IS strength in the Philippines numbered between 1,000 and 1,200, where up to 40 fighters originated from Indonesia.
However, the data of the Philippines security agencies had indicated that the IS strength in Marawi did not exceed 50 militants, who were supported by drug cartel networks of up to 500 personnel.
It is estimated that as many as 16 IS-affiliated and associated militant groups were active in the Philippines ahead of the Marawi siege.
The most capable groups were IS Sulu and Basilan (400-570 fighters), IS Lanao (Maute Group, 263 fighters), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (406 fighters), and Ansar Khilafa Mindanao (7-37 fighters).
During the battle of Marawi, which ended in late-2017, the Armed Forces of the Philippines killed or captured around 986 terrorists.
The siege of Marawi is a warning for all the South-east Asian states to improve intelligence gathering and sharing to stay one step ahead of the terrorists.
In conventional and non-traditional warfare, intelligence sharing and collaboration is critical. Had the agencies under the ministries of defence and home affairs shared and exchanged intelligence, this attack could have been prevented or pre-empted.
Moreover, the siege of Marawi underscored the fact that South-east Asia was unprepared for the current and emerging wave of terrorism and demonstrated the need for new security architecture for the Asean region.
WHY THE NEED FOR A NEW SECURITY ARCHITECTURE
In the face of an evolving terrorist threat, a multilateral intelligence sharing platform to detect routes taken by the foreign terrorist fighters, location of their training camps, means and patterns of propaganda dissemination as well as sources and channels of their funding is vital.
At the 5th ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting in Singapore on October 19, defence ministers from the 10 Asean nations officially adopted Our Eyes Initiative (OEI), a regional platform which emerged earlier in July 2017 to facilitate strategic intelligence exchange on terrorism, radicalism and violent extremism among Asean Member States.
Under the OEI initiative, the Defence Minsters for Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Brunei agreed on five main components: the creation of a common database, exchange of personnel, joint training and operations, sharing of expertise as well as the sharing of resources and experience.
They have also agreed to establish a joint working group that may include Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the future. As regional partners, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have also agreed to join the OEI.
As seen by the brutal acts of violence in the shooting and beheading of prisoners, burning of churches, kidnappings and use of female captives in Marawi, the IS ideology and methodology has taken root in South-east Asia.
As such, it was a grave concern that the threat might spread from the Philippines to Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.
Following this, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia developed the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA) that disrupted terrorist hijackings and hostage-taking in the Sulu Sea.
The first component of TCA was the launch of the Trilateral Maritime Patrol (TMP) by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in Tarakan, Indonesia in June 2017.
Maritime Command Centres were established in Tarakan, Tawau in Sabah and Bongao in the Philippines whereas Singapore and Brunei were invited as observers.
In addition, Singapore has offered its Information Fusion Centre to facilitate maritime information sharing for the TMP.
The second component of TCA was the October 12 2017 launch of the Trilateral Air Patrol by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines at the Subang Air Base in Malaysia.
Singapore and Brunei were likewise invited as observers. The planning for the third and fourth components, which involves national and joint land forces training and exercises and joint operations are currently underway.
These joint efforts can stem the continuing flow of funds and fighters to South-east Asia.
The creation of OEI was based on the principle that it takes a network to beat a network. If the terrorists in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore can train together in the Philippines, then the South-east Asian states should also engage in joint training, exercises and operations.
The Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting in the Philippines in 2017 reviewed the range of measures to prevent the spread of the terrorist threat from Mindanao to the region.
Although the threat diminished after Marawi, the developments in Mindanao demonstrate the continuity of the threat.
For instance, the July 31 suicide bombing in Lamitan in Basilan by a Moroccan terrorist was the most significant recent attack.
The primary threat today no longer stems from inter-state conflicts, but from terrorist and criminal actors who are operating in both the physical and cyber space.
Hence, counter terrorism responses should not be limited to state actors. Governments must engage civil society organisations, the academia and the private sector to prevent and counter violent extremism.
Around the world, these actors have proven to be creative and effective in crafting initiatives to counter the terrorist threat and promote moderation.
While governments should lead and coordinate these efforts, civil society actors have a better reach within the respective communities.
Although the creation of the right counter terrorism architecture is certainly a work in progress, partnerships with countries in the region and beyond on both the operational and intelligence front have produced significant successes.
With more nations both within and outside the region requesting to join hands to collectively fight terrorism, OEI has the potential to grow and surpass Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance that comprises Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US.
Extra-regional partners of South-east Asia, such as the US, have provided significant intelligence and operational leadership.
This includes a US-led counter terrorism operation against Bahrun Naim – an Indonesian fighter who has plotted several attacks on his home country and the Marina Bay in Singapore – in Ash Shafa, Syria on June 8.
The operation against Bahrun Naim has once again demonstrated the value of government-to-government cooperation in dealing with the changing threat landscape in South-east Asia.
It is also crucial that militaries, law enforcement and intelligence services closely monitor the ever-evolving landscape of in terrorism, extremism and exclusivism in the region.